Posted on April 20, 2015 by Maya Zinkow
Every Yom HaShoah, I am transported back to my eighth grade English class.
Amidst a sea of plaid skirts, headbands, and decorated notebooks, I am the only Jew in my class. Open on each desk is a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. I feel the familiar discomfort wash over me – from my loafers on up to my big, curly hair – as we begin our discussion of the assigned reading, a discomfort that has lasted for the duration of our month-long unit on Holocaust literature. As we read passages aloud, I feel protective of this girl I’ve never met, but whose personal diary has become the gateway to Holocaust education. While I could recognize the historical and educational significance in reading this relic, I did and still do feel so much sadness for this girl whose layered internal life, contained only in this little diary, is the world’s to read. In that eighth grade classroom, I felt, for a moment, as if the pages of my own life were open on each desk.
This year was no different; I still remember that awkward moment of confused sadness, pain, and protectiveness, and Anne’s voice is still used as a prominent memory in constructing the narrative of the Holocaust. At our own commemoration of Yom Hashoah here at Pardes, one of the many moving readings was, indeed, one of the last passages from Anne’s diary. As my peer began to read her words, I recognized right away that youthful hopefulness, Anne’s signature optimism in the face of utter desperation. I allowed the familiar feelings to settle over me while contemplating the discussion Dean Bernstein led earlier in the day.
We discussed the significant and often disproportionate role the Holocaust tends to play in Jewish education today, brainstorming the possible reasons behind this reality and the potentially negative implications for our future as a Jewish people. While we must continue to take the rallying cry of “never forget” seriously and to mourn the lives brutally taken, we must also ask the question: what would it mean if this was all we did in response to the unspeakable injustices of the shoah?
In my own life, I am grateful for the Jewish institutions that have instilled in me the ability to create and cultivate a Jewish identity built not only on the importance of collective memory, but also on tradition, intellectual curiosity, music, relationships, learning, and continuity of Jewish peoplehood. I am grateful that today, I sit with many books open on the desk in front of me. They are texts that belong to all of us, texts that speak truths about our past, present, and future. They are texts that can and do inspire me to both remember and create, to both reflect and do good in our yet broken world.
However alone I felt in that eighth grade classroom, I could never imagine the constant pain and loneliness in a world without places that celebrate Jewishness in colorful, musical, engaging, and meaningful ways. While Anne’s identity remains contained within the pages of a miraculously preserved diary, we have the opportunity and responsibility to participate in, create, maintain, and lead institutions that allow us to continually grow in our Judaism. We must learn, play, dance, sing, laugh, and pray in spaces where we are proudly our full Jewish selves.
Today, as I witnessed the memorial siren for the first time, Anne’s words rang out to me in tandem with the sharp blast that stops traffic every year:
“It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”
As we mourn, remember, and commemorate, we must also recognize the wonder and miracle of contemporary Jewish spaces that allow us to develop as individuals, foster community, and ensure our future as a Jewish people, and beyond that: we must adopt the kind of astounding optimism of this young girl, and act on that optimism. To do anything less would keep her voice trapped within the pages of her diary. And I think, finally, I am glad that her book is wide open.